When the Watergate scandal grew into a full-bore crisis, Richard Nixon's aides hatched a plan to save his presidency: Convince lawmakers and the public that the Watergate prosecutor was a zealot holding a "pistol to the head" of the president.
It did not work.
Memos and tape recordings released Tuesday by the Nixon Presidential Library shed light on fateful moments of Nixon's second term, among them a peace deal with North Vietnam, sea changes in domestic and foreign policy and management of the Cold War.
They also give insights into a well-known characteristic of Nixon and his aides — a hair-trigger sensitivity to political rivals and quick resort to machinations against them.
A 1972 meeting between Nixon and his chief of staff produced an informal directive to "destroy" the "pipsqueak" running for Democratic vice president, according to scribbled notes released in the new collection.
Sharp-witted, crude, manipulative
In a memo three years earlier, Nixon's staff assistant described placing under observation the movements of some politically active members of the family of assassinated President John F. Kennedy in Massachusetts after Kennedy's youngest brother, Ted, drove off a bridge in an accident that drowned his female companion.
The materials show Nixon as sharp-witted, crude, manipulative and sometimes surprisingly liberal by comparison with mainstream Republicans today.
In one letter, he solidly endorsed the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, saying that for 20 years, "I have not altered my belief that equal rights for women warrant a Constitutional guarantee." The amendment failed.
Yet in a taped conversation with George H.W. Bush, then the Republican Pary chairman, Nixon pitched the recruitment of pretty women in particular to run for the party, after two caught his eye in the South Carolina Legislature.
"Let's look for some," he said. "And understand, I don't do it because I'm for women. But I'm doing it because (a) woman might win some place where a man might not."
Nixon is heard on a muffled tape recording telling his special counsel that abortion is necessary in some cases — including instances of multiracial pregnancy.
Speaking to Charles Colson after the January 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, the president said: "I admit, there are times when abortions are necessary, I know that." He gave "a black and a white" as an example.
"Or rape," Colson offered. "Or rape," Nixon agreed.
Drumbeat of Watergate
The Watergate episode was a gathering drumbeat through it all as it eventually consumed Nixon's presidency. The peril is palpable in memos that surfaced Tuesday.
The scandal was sparked by the June 1972 break-in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington's Watergate complex. That incident and related scandals and coverups were eventually traced back to the administration of Nixon, who was up for re-election in November 1972. Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern handily, but he resigned two years later in disgrace.
A nine-page handwritten note by Nixon's domestic policy adviser, Kenneth Cole, reflects on the unfolding "Saturday night massacre," when Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox and lost the two top Justice Department officials in October 1973, bringing the nation to the brink of constitutional crisis.
'Cox threw down the gauntlet'
Cox was pressing relentlessly for Nixon's White House tape recordings as he investigated the president's involvement in the cover-up of the Watergate break-in.
Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy, William D. Ruckelshaus, refused to carry out Nixon's decision to fire Cox — and were removed, too.
Cole recommended demonizing the investigator — a tactic Bill Clinton and his aides would try in his own impeachment drama years later, against prosecutor Kenneth Starr.
"Cox wanted to keep this an unending crisis of the body politic," Cole wrote, laying out an argument for Nixon partisans that would be called talking points today.
"Cox threw down the gauntlet — at a time when we don't need some 4th Branch of gov't telling P to go to hell."
In his shorthand, he called the president "P" and Richardson "ELR." The memo was dated Oct. 21, 1973, the day after the notorious Saturday.
Under the headline Game Plan, Cole laid out a strategy for the beleaguered Republican president to reach out to conservative Southern Democrats as well as supportive Republican lawmakers to try to dampen sentiment for impeachment.
They would be told Cox had a "pistol to the head of P; he was extorted."
Nixon aides also would argue that inquiries ultimately would exonerate him, and Congress should not do anything rash: "Wait til you see the product — all will be revealed — let's wait til then."
He said of Richardson: "ELR wondered how he could be Cox's executioner."
Some 30,000 pages of documents were opened to the public at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and the Nixon library in Yorba Linda, California, part of a long unfolding and staggered declassification of papers and tapes from the Nixon years. The archives administers the library.
In addition, the library posted more than 150 hours of tape recordings online. The tapes cover January and February 1973, spanning Nixon's second inauguration, the peace deal with Hanoi and the trial and conviction of the Watergate burglars. Nixon resigned in August 1974 under threat of being forced out by Congress.
"Nixon had held off serious Watergate inquiries through the 1972 re-election, but he did not have a plan to circumvent them beginning in 1973," said Luke A. Nichter, a Nixon historian at Texas A&M University whose Web site http://www.nixontapes.org specializes in the tape recordings.
After the conviction of the burglars on Jan. 30, 1973, Nichter said, "Watergate begins to take a small but accelerating day-to-day role in policymaking at the White House, a role that reached crisis by April 1973."
Also in the files:
- Papers from H.R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, include notes from his July 25, 1972, meeting with the president. They talked about Thomas Eagleton, the Democratic vice presidential pick, and Spiro Agnew, Nixon's vice president, in the lead-up to the presidential election that year.
"Destroy Egltn — the pip-squeak that he is," Haldeman wrote in shorthand, apparently reflecting Nixon's wishes. Eagleton was soon gone from the ticket after his treatment for mental illness was disclosed.
The orders on "how to handle Agnew," whom Nixon did not like: Have him campaign in small southern states, "not build him up." "No impt duties." "Shldn't have played tennis Sat AM."
- A letter from Jack Caulfield, who conducted investigations of Nixon's foes as the president's staff assistant. He reported that "our investigator" discreetly observed Robert Kennedy Jr. going to see the car that his uncle had driven off the Chappaquiddick bridge two weeks earlier. Caulfield suggests a Kennedy family bodyguard could become a useful source of information.
- An "exclusively eyes only" memo about a July 1973 meeting between Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, and Iran's U.S.-backed dictator, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Kissinger asked the shah to help arm and defend Pakistan. He said the United States was constrained on that front. "If we were to do more, it would create a major domestic problem for us," he said. "The Indians would raise a big uproar. Our intellectuals have a love affair with India. Our policy is to encourage the Chinese to the maximum to put arms into Pakistan. I believe they have done well to date."
When Kissinger expressed worry that Syria and Iraq would attack Jordan, the shah raised the prospect of leaning on Kurds in Iraq to start a diversion. "We could play the Kurdish card and encourage them to begin skirmishing," Pahlavi said. "That would drag Iraqi troops to the north of Iraq away from Jordan."
More than 2,200 hours of taped conversations have come out since the first release in 1980; many more are still to come. From 1971 to 1973, Nixon secretly recorded 3,700 hours of his phone calls and meetings, Nichter said.